I’ve made it loud and clear on numerous occasions over the past weeks that The Poppy War is my favourite read of 2018. I think it has the potential to be one of my favourite reads of all time (I usually wait a couple of years after my first read to make that call). I’ve had such a hard time getting the book out of my mind that I’ve decided to do a detailed chapter-by-chapter reread while waiting for the sequel. Please join me if you have finished The Poppy War but want to dive back into this world.
SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE BOOK BELOW. PLEASE DO NOT READ THESE POSTS UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED READING THE POPPY WAR.
- Chapters 1-2: Current Page
- Chapter 3
Content Warning of Chapters 1-2: self-harm, allusion to sexual assault, drug addiction and drug use, death, hit-and-run accident.
Dedication: This is for Iris.
I completely missed this dedication on my first read through of the novel, seeing this made me tear up all over again. Iris Chang wrote an account of The Rape of Nanjing in 1997, and her book was one of the inspiration for The Poppy War. Hers is a tragic story of intergenerational trauma and the lasting wounds of war. I would like to think she would have loved this novel.
Maps never makes much sense to me on my first read through of any book, because the location names mean nothing to me. I appreciate this gorgeous map a lot more now that I have a better understanding of Nikara, its various provinces, and the relationship it has to its neighbouring nations. The Federation of Mugen is an analogue of Japan. I did not pay The Hinterlands much attention beforehand, but now that I know my beloved Chaghan hails from there, I find it interesting that it’s this universe’s version of Mongolia, especially given their relationship with shamanism. I wonder if the next novel will show an expanded version of this map, to include other nations such as Hesperia.
We begin the Keju examinations and its anti-cheating protocols, this scene reminded me immediately of the Chinese dramas I used to watch when I was little – there are countless stories where a downtrodden scholar earns glory by acing the Imperial examinations and becoming a civil minister. I love that in this world, females are also eligible for the examination – and indeed several women hold the highest offices in the land, such as The Empress or the head of Sinegard. However, we still see manifestation of sexism in the lack of women in Sinegard and beyond – and in the Fang’s assumption that Rin’s only inherent worth is in a marriage to the village import inspector.
“Why would anyone drug themselves before a test?”
Knowing how heavily drugs influence the course of the plot, I find Rin’s comment retrospectively hilarious.
“A hundred test booklets were opened with a flapping noise, like a flock of sparrows taking off at once.”
This is just such a beautiful imagery, I remember pausing in appreciation on my first read through on the audiobook.
The book then flashes back to two years before, and we learn about Rin’s upbringing at the hands of the Fang’s. It’s tragically ironic that she fought so hard to get away from the opium trade and its influence, only to be confronted with its abuse and addiction in a much more significant way later on. I also wonder how much of The Empress’s war on drugs is based on her knowledge of its ability to open the channels to the gods. In the 19th century, imperial edict against opium stemmed from its fraught trade history and widespread opium addiction across the country. So I also wonder whether Hesperia played any role in the opiumsupply to Nikara and how that will influence their relationship in future books.
This is also the first instance where we learn of The Empress’s name: Su Daji. For those who are unfamiliar with Chinese history and media, Daji is the infamous consort of King Zhou of Shang. She is rumoured to be a malicious fox-spirit and is blamed for the fall of the Shang Dynasty. History is littered with beautiful women who are blamed for the follies and tragedies of men, and now that I know more about The Empress and her agendas, I am so excited to see how The Poppy War will explore and potentially subvert this archetype in the future.
I missed seeing Tutor Feyrik, who despite all his flaws was the closest thing Rin had to a mentor and parental figure in her early years. I hope he is currently inundated with student requests, all eager to become the next Fang Runin of Tikany.
“Well, fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.”
Also known as the moment I fell in love with Rin.
Auntie Fang’s ‘advice’ on how Rin should handle her future husband is one of the most terrifying passages of this book. I really like that even characters like Auntie Fang are given layers, in this case through her love for Kesegi.
We are given a crash course of Nikara’s history, and this is one of those times where I do not mind an info-dump. Nikara has a lot in common with China, down to the legendary Emperor that united the vast nation. It also reminds us that the current Empress does not rule over a united Nikara, leading to questions about where the loyalties of the twelve provinces lie.
“The pain made him focus,” she said.
“That’s not really what I was trying to –”
“The pain made him focus.”
Classic Rin, her eyes is always on the prize and it can give her tunnel vision – a trait that would come back to haunt her in the future.
Also, this has got to be the most intense segment about exam cramming I’ve ever read – it makes me glad I don’t have to do tests anymore. There is some self-harm as Rin tries to maintain her focus on studying, these are the first of the many fire-related wounds she will inflict on herself before the series is over.
As Rin begins praying to the gods for the Keju, we get some exposition on Nikara’s relationship with religions. The military forces of the Red Emperor have wiped out the influence monastic orders once had on Nikara. The pantheon of gods is now considered myths and legends, so it would be interesting to see how Nikara will respond to Rin and the Cikes in future novels.
Slowly Rin removed the incense stick from her nostril
“Hello,” she said. “I’m praying.”
“Please leave,” he said.
You know, for a book featuring so much blood-shed and war and darkness, The Poppy War is really funny. Also, from sticking incense into her nose in an attempt at praying to becoming a living channel for The Phoenix? This is Nikara’s greatest glow up.
It’s revealed that Rin not only passed the Keju, she has the top score in her province!
She had bribed a teacher. She had stolen opium. She had burned herself, lied to her foster parents, abandoned her responsibilities at the store, and broken a marriage deal.
And she was going to Sinegard.
YES QUEEN. I also just realised that we, fittingly, never learned the name of the village inspector they intended Rin to marry. He’s not even a footnote in her legend.
The nobility in Tikany are suspicious and jealous of Rin’s success in the Keju. The officials attempt to prove that she cheated during the Keju. Like underprivileged women everywhere, fictional or otherwise, Rin has to try ten times as hard to get a fraction of the recognition the world awards wealthy men.
The class divide between the peasants and the nobility is something The Poppy War is quick to highlight and reiterate. Knowing that Rin’s character is based on Mao Zedong, I can’t help but marvel at the genius in laying the foundation for her ideologies and potential choices in the future.
“But it’s not fair.”
“It’s life, Kesegi.”
Rin saying bye to Kesegi will never stop being heart-wrenching, especially now that we’ve seen the chimei scene and realising how much she loves him.
In that satchel Rin had also packed the Mengzi tome, a set of writing brushes that were a gift from Tutor Feyrik, and a small money pouch. The satchel held all of her possessions in the world.
Tutor Feyrik’s relationship with Rin is one of my favourite things, the Mengzi tome was his as well, so it makes me sob a little that most of Rin’s possession were from him. I have a lot of Feelings for this student-teacher relationship.
Rin sets off for Sinegard with Tutor Feyrik, and we are quick to learn about the dangers of travel in Nikara.
The Red Junk Opera was a religious cult of bandits and outlaws famous for their attempts on the Empress’s life after the Second Poppy War. It has faded to myth by now, but remained vividly alive in the Nikara imagination.
This rebel group was so rarely mentioned during The Poppy War that I almost completely forgot about them, but now that Rin is intent on taking down the Empress, what’s better than joining a mythical rebel alliance? They are also a religious cult, of which deities? How will the Phoenix play into it? I am here for this.
I love Tutor Feyrik’s cautionary tales about Sinegard, and Rin’s wide-eyed shock at his stories of scam and thievery. This is pretty much the conversation that my mum and relatives give me every time I’m about to go back to Saigon, so I keenly relate.
Rin and Tutor Feyrik glimpses at the Federation’s soldiers as they enter Sinegard, the immediate tension is sign of darker things to come.
“The women here are so white,” Rin marvelled. “Like the girls in wall paintings.”
Asia’s colourism and preference for white-skin is problematic and well-documented. I’ve watched media from East Asia all my life, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a celebrity who isn’t porcelain pale. Rin has darker skin compared to the women of Sinegard, and the assumptions made about her intelligence and character based on her skin colour is something that’s explored very well within this book.
The description of Sinegard and its varied architectural styles, a remnant of the various regimes that have fallen in and out of power throughout its history, is particularly beautiful. I’m fresh back from Vietnam, where many of the major cities bear the same jumble of building, a physical reminder of our turbulent past.
Sinegard the city was smothering, confusing, and frightening.
But Sinegard Academy was beautiful beyond description.
We finally arrive at the famed Sinegard Academy. Looking back, the years spent within this school was probably the best years Rin has experienced, which just really goes to show the kind of book that this is.
Her son was a fine-featured boy who would have been very petty if he hadn’t had such a resentful expression on his face.
Malfoy! Zuko! My beloved Nezha! Latest acquisition in my harem of bratty fuckboys with monumental character development.
The Warlords like to claim that the Keju makes Nikan a meritocracy, but the system is designed to keep the poor and illiterate in their place. You’re offending them with your very presence.
The disparity between the Warlords and the peasants are highlighted once more. There is growing discontent with the Imperial rule among the people. Tutor Feyrik’s parting words is one of the first seeds to Rin’s eventual revolution – I can not wait to see Rin’s transformation and how these ideas will take shape over the following books!
The scene where Rin says her farewell to Tutor Feyrik remains one of my favourite scenes in the book, packed with emotions and vulnerabilities and determination. It also makes the next scene, where Rin punches Nezha for insulting her teacher, all the more satisfying.
Raban breaks up their fight, promising they will have plenty of opportunities to kill each other throughout the year. I am already 200% invested in the Rin/Nezha rivalry.
Check back for the next Reread at Midnight, where we meet my favourite son Kitay and the Drug Man! These rereads and lengthier than I expected, so I am cutting down to doing just one chapter a week going forward. The book has 25 chapters in total, so we should be done long before the sequel is out.
What did you think of the first two chapters of The Poppy War? Did you love Rin right off the bat?